Lack of exposure, household names clouds new IndyCar season

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Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti are the only Americans confirmed to drive the full season in the Izod IndyCar Series. They're very marketable -- the world's best-known female race car driver and an emerging star with a royal racing lineage -- but will the American public, in person and on television, provide growth to a series with a primarily international field?

There's no question that established stars from outside the United States, like Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan, are capable of selling tickets and attracting viewers. They've all either won the Indianapolis 500 or an IndyCar championship or both. They've also been in the series long enough that they're not viewed as Brazilians or Scotsmen or Australian or Englishmen, they're viewed as drivers who have made their home in IndyCar and in the United States. Castroneves is even talking about becoming an American citizen.

IndyCar, in its third season back under one roof, is stable going into 2010. It will have between 22 and 26 cars in 16 of its races, plus 33 at the Indianapolis 500. The drivers race in the fastest, highest-performing cars in North America and they do it on all types of tracks. IndyCar, for the first time since 2001, has a title sponsor in Izod, a big boost to the image and marketing of the series. IndyCar has the vast majority of the elements that brought open-wheel racing to its pinnacle in the early-to-middle 1990s.

Two critical areas are missing for IndyCar to enter a renaissance period to regain all that ground lost from 1996 to 2007 in the war between CART/Champ Car and the Indy Racing League: More American drivers and a dramatically improved television package. They're inter-related, part of the problem and part of the solution.

IndyCar's television package is stronger internationally than domestically, where 12 of the 17 races are on the Versus network. Versus is in only 60 million homes, roughly half of the homes in America. ABC broadcasts the other five races, including Indianapolis. You can sell ABC to sponsors, but Versus won't get you in most doors.

It explains why Brazilians Mario Romancini and Ana Beatriz will be racing in the IndyCar season opener this weekend in their home country and American J.R. Hildebrand won't. Romancini and Beatriz are both promising drivers, but by no measure have they performed better than Hildebrand. Hildebrand won four races and was the champion Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar's top development series, last year. Romancini won two races and was sixth in the points and Beatriz was eighth in Lights.

IndyCar is broadcast on one of Brazil's best networks. With it, Romancini and Beatriz were able to sell sponsorship to join teams who needed funding.

Hildebrand spent the last six months of last year trying to put himself in the same position. He's still trying, hopeful of moving into IndyCars at some point this season.

"Since the middle of last season, I've been talking to teams about different opportunities at different levels," Hildebrand said. "For better or worse, part of the reason a fair number of guys [Americans] are without rides at this point is because not a lot of properly funded rides opened up. The economy and the financial side plays a huge role. I realized coming up with funding and sponsorship dollars is probably as important as anything in getting into IndyCar."

Versus isn't the only reason for the lack of Americans in IndyCar, but it is a stumbling block. This is the second year of the Versus contract and the season starts without Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter, both without jobs because their teams don't have sponsorship. It's probably not a coincidence.

Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby, was seventh in the points last season for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. He won at St. Petersburg in his first race in the series in 2008. Carpenter has driven in the series since 2003 with solid results on ovals. He finished second at Kentucky by a couple of inches, .0162 of a second timed electronically.

Versus hopes IndyCar will drive consumers to it and increase households, but it won't happen without American drivers.

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sarah Fisher will drive at least partial schedules this season. Hunter-Reay, the winner of IndyCar's race at Watkins Glen in 2008, has sponsorship from Izod and will also run in the second race at St. Petersburg, Fla. He's driving for Andretti Autosport, which hopes to put together a full season. Fisher has nine races scheduled with the team she owns.

Rahal and Hildebrand could also race in the series this season, raising the number of Americans in the series to six in races outside Indianapolis. Even if they were running full time, it wouldn't be enough to begin lifting IndyCar back to its 1995 level. Indianapolis is a different story. There will be a healthy contingent of Americans there.

IndyCar's team owners bear responsibility for the number of Americans.

• Englishman Dan Wheldon drives a National Guard-sponsored car for Panther Racing.

• Hildebrand seems unlikely to get the Boy Scouts of America-sponsored car entered by Dale Coyne Racing, who is expected to hire Englishman Alex Lloyd.

• Even A.J. Foyt, an American icon, has a Brazilian, Vitor Meira, driving for him.

Lloyd is also an Indy Lights champion. He's driven in three IndyCar races, twice at Indianapolis, and it apparently gave him the edge over Hildebrand.

"I understand that," Hildebrand said. "Having guys in the seat with some experience, guys that can run at Indy without hitting the wall, that's not a risk teams can take."

Sam Hornish Jr.'s defection to Sprint Cup after taking three IndyCar championships and the 2006 Indy 500 was devastating to IndyCar. Hornish broke into the series with a miniscule amount of sponsorship and family money behind him in 2000, driving for small PDM Racing in a partial season. He showed enough to get a test with Panther, which had a fully funded ride available, and was hired. Hornish won the next two IndyCar championships, plus a third in 2006 with Penske Racing. He provided the most recent proof that Americans can compete with the drivers who come from Brazil, Europe and Japan.

It hasn't always been called IndyCar, but the top-level of open-wheel racing in the United States has been contesting national championships since 1909 and racing at Indianapolis since 1911. It has a rich tradition of American champions.

Rick Mears was the new star when CART began in 1979 and his four Indianapolis 500 wins and 29 total victories before retiring in 1992 carried IndyCar forward. He had help. Bobby Rahal came over from sports cars in 1982 and won three championships. Danny Sullivan arrived in 1984 from Formula 1 and became a star with his 1985 spin-and-win at Indianapolis. Mario Andretti returned to IndyCar racing full time in 1983 and won the championship in 1984. The second generation of Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. arrived in 1983 and went on to multiple wins and championships.

When Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time F1 World Champion, came out of retirement to race IndyCars in 1984, he brought an international following. Nigel Mansell, the reigning F1 World Champion, stunned the world with his move to IndyCars in 1993. That combination of American and international talent brought the sport to its greatest racing and acclaim.

IndyCar can get there again. But it can't do it without Americans.